The A.B.C. Murders
by Agatha Christie
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Postmodern Mystery
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Agatha Christie wrote some 80 mysteries,
which have sold a staggering four billion
copies—putting her alongside Shakespeare
and behind only the Bible in readership.  
But Christie could also
live a mystery of her
own—the experts will
forever speculate about
the story behind her
mysterious disappear-
ance in December
1926, spurring a mas-
sive manhunt until her
discovery, living under
an assumed name in
Yorkshire, eleven days later. Explanations
run the gamut from amnesia to a
publicity stunt, or even a set-up to get
her philandering husband arrested on
murder charges.  Certainly art and artifice
overlapped in the life of this grand lady
of the detective genre. She learned about
poisons by working in a pharmacy, and
about wounds of various sort as a nurse
during World War I.  And she could be as
unreliable a witness as any in her books
—one of her tall tales, told to a
credulous interviewer, was that she didn't
know who the culprit in her stories would
be until she started writing the final
chapter.  On another occasion she
recommended washing dishes as a good
way to come up with an idea for a book.  
Not the sentimental type, she killed off
both of her star sleuths, Miss Marple and
Hercule Poirot, the latter receiving the
unprecedented honor of being the only
fictional character to receive an obituary
in
The New York Times (with the headline
"Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian
Detective").  A teetotaler and a non-
smoker, Christie would eventually gain
great respectability as a Dame
Commander of the Order of the
British Empire—which made her
Dame Agatha Christie; but remember
that this same lady who averred that
"very few of us are what we seem."
ROGUES GALLERY:
AGATHA CHRISTIE

Further Clues:

The Official Agatha Christie Website

Agatha Christie: The BBC Interviews

All About Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie: The Mysterious Disappearance
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In the postmodern mystery, the detective often
seems more interested in deconstructing documents
than solving crimes. So deeply has the linguistic turn
in academia permeated these books, that semiotics
trumps criminology time and again, and fingerprints
and bloodstains are rudely ignored in favor of
explication de texte.  

Fans of more traditional mysteries
may prefer to blame
Auster or Eco
for this inward turn, which risks
reducing murder most foul into
one more esoteric graduate seminar.
But an obsession with texts and
symbols has been part of the genre
from the very start. Recall that
Edgar Allan Poe, often lauded as
the inventor of the detective story,
focused one of his most famous
tales on the pursuit of a purloined
letter—no bloody death to investi-
gate, merely a text to hunt down—
and built his classic tale "The Gold Bug" on the
deciphering of an intricately coded
discourse. Arthur
Conan Doyle followed in the same steps with "The
Adventure of the Dancing Men," in which Sherlock
Holmes takes on the role of the codebreaker, and a
host of later mystery authors have similarly built
stories around the interpretation of troubling documents.

Yet any account of the role of symbols and texts in
the detective genre must give a prominent place to
Agatha Christie's
The A.B.C. Murders. Here not just the
clues but the very crime itself is driven by a linguistic
game. The victims and the locations of the crime follow
an alphabetical sequence, with no apparent motivation
beyond a deadly insistence on what Saussure would call
"the arbitrary nature of the sign."

The first crime is announced in advance via a letter to
Ms. Christie’s most celebrated sleuth.     

Mr. Hercule Poirot—You fancy yourself, don’t you, at
solving mysteries that are too difficult for our poor thick-
headed British police? Let us see, Mr. Clever Poirot, just
how clever you can be. Perhaps you’ll find this nut too
hard to crack. Look out for Andover on the 21st of the
month.  

Yours, etc.,

A.B.C.

Needless to say, a murder takes place at Andover in
the early hours of the 21st, and the victim is named
Alice Ascher.  In time, another letter arrives anticipating
the next crime: the killing of Betty Barnard of Bexhill-
on-Sea.  And so on and so forth. If Poirot doesn’t solve
this mystery, the A.B.C. murderer may very well knock
off 26 people in 26 different locations. ("You'll have
him by the heels long before that," remarks one of
the investigators; "interesting to know how he'd have
dealt with the letter X.")

The premise is a striking one, and Christie’s
unconventional serial killer could serve, without
further postmodern twists, as the centerpiece for
a gripping mystery.  But our author risks undermining
the suspense of her tale by introducing us to Mr.
A.B.C. himself almost at the outset of the novel
and periodically throughout the book’s duration.
With a jarring dislocation from the first-person narrative
by Captain Hastings, Poirot’s Dr. Watson, Christie
offers updates on Alexander Bonaparte Cust as he
travels to various crime scenes where the alphabetical
murders take place, sometimes leaving behind
incriminating evidence.  

This is a strange, disruptive technique, but Christie
was never afraid of adopting avant-garde approaches
to the detective genre.  She would constantly befuddle
her readers with unreliable narrators, criminals who
escape justice, a murder in which
all of the suspects
were guilty, a crime in which the culprit is one of the
victims, and other unexpected deviations from the
accepted formulas for such tales. In works such as
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder in the Calais Coach
and The A.B.C. Murders, Christie turned the usually
narrowly focused mystery story into a playground for
unconventional techniques and rampant rule-breaking
of the very genre constraints that she had helped
establish during the course of her career.

In
The A.B.C. Murders, Christie even pokes fun at
herself.  Early on in the story, she includes a
discussion between Poirot and Hastings in which
they laugh at the predictable ingredients in the very
books in which they appear.  At moments such as
these, Christie is not far afield from Gilbert Sorrentino,
who enlivened his
Mulligan Stew with a gripe session
where characters complain about the lousy novels
they inhabit.  

"If you could order a crime as one orders dinner what
would you choose?"

"Robbery, forgery. I think not….It must be murder—
red-blooded murder—with trimmings, of course….
Who shall the victim be—man or woman? Man, I think.
Some bigwig.  American millionaire. Prime Minister.   
Newspaper proprietor. Scene of the crime—well,
what’s wrong with the good old library? Nothing like
it for atmosphere. As for the weapon—well, it might
be curiously twisted dagger—or some blunt instrument
—a carved stone idol…."

And Christie continues in this vein for another page,
listing likely suspects in this imaginary mystery,
suggesting false clues and providing, in her own words,
"a very pretty resume of nearly all the detective stories
that have ever been written."

There are a few sloppy moments here, as is inevitable
in an author who maintained such extraordinary
productivity over so many years. At one point we are
told that our criminal is not just your usual killer, but
a "homicidal murderer"—as if there is any
other kind?—
and elsewhere we have implausible circumstances, such
as a man getting stabbed in a public place without
flinching or making a cry.  And the final denouement
is to plots what Rube Goldberg is to technology.    

But you don’t go to Agatha Christie seeking Proustian
prose or Balzac’s realism.  Her aim is to entice and
puzzle us, and she delivers on those counts, presenting
her readers with a story that is radically different from
the norm, and proving that an author who left behind
some eighty detective novels—roughly five million
words of whodunits—could always dig into her toolbox
and come up with something fresh and different, yet
as simple as A.B.C.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His
latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by
Oxford University Press.

Essay published August 23, 2011.
Click on image to purchase
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The A.B.C. Murders

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Ilustrado

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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